All posts filed under: Technology

Technology

China’s VPN crackdown

Internet censors have a new target. The Chinese and Russian governments recently announced plans to block the use of “virtual private networks” (VPNs), which are a key tool for people trying to avoid internet restrictions and surveillance. This crackdown isn’t surprising, given the two countries’ histories of monitoring their citizens and blocking certain websites and online services. But it raises the question of whether other governments will follow this lead and introduce their own VPN bans, especially given how VPNs currently allow citizens to avoid the extensive internet surveillance that Western governments practice. China and other countries block many websites they don’t want their citizens to access, including sites such as Twitter and YouTube that allow users to freely post almost anything they like. But Chinese internet users wishing to evade these restrictions can currently use VPNs to visit these sites, because they provide access via a separate encrypted server that can’t be monitored by the government. Since Chinese internet service providers only filter out connections to the likes of Twitter and YouTube, users can …

Lessons from the 2017 solar eclipse

If you’ve never seen a solar eclipse before, you should make an effort to witness the breathtaking event on August 21. While only people in the US will be able to see the total eclipse – in which the moon completely blocks the light from the sun – those living in parts of South America, Africa and Europe should be able to see at least a partial solar eclipse. Solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun so that it blocks part or all of the sunlight as viewed from a particular location on our planet. Earth is the only planet in the solar system where this can happen in this way. This is because of the moon’s size and its relative distance from the sun – when viewed from the Earth, it can identically cover the bright solar disc to reveal the tenuous, wispy outer atmosphere of the star (called the solar corona). An eclipse does not happen every time the moon travels around the Earth. This is because …

What is an atomic magnet

There is an adage that says that data will expand to fill all available capacity. Perhaps ten or 20 years ago, it was common to stockpile software programs, MP3 music, films and other files, which may have taken years to collect. In the days when hard disk drives offered a few tens of gigabytes of storage, running out of space was almost inevitable. Now that we have fast broadband internet and think nothing of downloading a 4.7 gigabyte DVD, we can amass data even more quickly. Estimates of the total amount of data held worldwide are to rise from 4.4 trillion gigabytes in 2013 to 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020. This means that we are generating an average of 15m gigabytes per day. Even though hard disk drives are now measured in thousands of gigabytes rather than tens, we still have a storage problem. Research and development is focused on developing new means of data storage that are more dense and so can store greater amounts of data, and do so in a more energy …

Why artificial intelligence scarily unpredictable?

The heads of more than 100 of the world’s top artificial intelligence companies are very alarmed about the development of “killer robots”. In an open letter to the UN, these business leaders – including Tesla’s Elon Musk and the founders of Google’s DeepMind AI firm – warned that autonomous weapon technology could be misused by terrorists and despots or hacked to perform in undesirable ways. But the real threat is much bigger – and not just from human misconduct but from the machines themselves. The research into complex systems shows how behaviour can emerge that is much more unpredictable than the sum of individual actions. On one level this means human societies can behave very differently to what you might expect just looking at individual behaviour. But it can also apply to technology. Even ecosystems of relatively simple AI programs – what we call stupid, good bots – can surprise us, and even when the individual bots are behaving well. The individual elements that make up complex systems, such as economic markets or global weather, …

The hacker ethic

The arrest of a British cybersecurity researcher on charges of disseminating malware and conspiring to commit computer fraud and abuse provides a window into the complexities of hacking culture. In May, a person going by the nickname “MalwareTech” gained international fame – and near-universal praise – for figuring out how to slow, and ultimately effectively stop, the worldwide spread of the WannaCry malware attack. But in August, the person behind that nickname, Marcus Hutchins, was arrested on federal charges of writing and distributing a different malware attack first spotted back in 2014. The judicial system will sort out whether Hutchins, who has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty, will face as much as 40 years in prison. But to me as a sociologist studying the culture and social patterns of cybercrime, Hutchins’ experience is emblematic of the values, beliefs and practices of many hackers. The hacker ethic The term “hacking” has its origins in the 1950s and 1960s at MIT, where it was used as a positive label to describe someone who tinkers with computers. …

Quantum consciousness

The mere mention of “quantum consciousness” makes most physicists cringe, as the phrase seems to evoke the vague, insipid musings of a New Age guru. But if a new hypothesis proves to be correct, quantum effects might indeed play some role in human cognition. Matthew Fisher, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, raised eyebrows late last year when he published a paper in Annals of Physics proposing that the nuclear spins of phosphorus atoms could serve as rudimentary “qubits” in the brain—which would essentially enable the brain to function like a quantum computer. As recently as 10 years ago, Fisher’s hypothesis would have been dismissed by many as nonsense. Physicists have been burned by this sort of thing before, most notably in 1989, when Roger Penrose proposed that mysterious protein structures called “microtubules” played a role in human consciousness by exploiting quantum effects. Few researchers believe such a hypothesis plausible. Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California, San Diego, memorably opined that one might as well invoke “pixie dust in …

Doctor vs Crowdsourced AI diagnosis app

Shantanu Nundy recognized the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis when his 31-year-old patient suffering from crippling hand pain checked into Mary’s Center in Washington, D.C. Instead of immediately starting treatment, though, Nundy decided first to double-check his diagnosis using a smartphone app that helps with difficult medical cases by soliciting advice from doctors worldwide. Within a day, Nundy’s hunch was confirmed. The app had used artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze and filter advice from several medical specialists into an overall ranking of the most likely diagnoses. Created by the Human Diagnosis Project (Human Dx)—an organization that Nundy directs—the app is one of the latest examples of growing interest in human–AI collaboration to improve health care. Human Dx advocates the use of machine learning—a popular AI technique that automatically learns from classifying patterns in data—to crowdsource and build on the best medical knowledge from thousands of physicians across 70 countries. Physicians at several major medical research centers have shown early interest in the app. Human Dx on Thursday announced a new partnership with top medical profession organizations …

An artificial neural network for relational reasoning

How many parks are near the new home you’re thinking of buying? What’s the best dinner-wine pairing at a restaurant? These everyday questions require relational reasoning, an important component of higher thought that has been difficult for artificial intelligence (AI) to master. Now, researchers at Google’s DeepMind have developed a simple algorithm to handle such reasoning—and it has already beaten humans at a complex image comprehension test. Humans are generally pretty good at relational reasoning, a kind of thinking that uses logic to connect and compare places, sequences, and other entities. But the two main types of AI—statistical and symbolic—have been slow to develop similar capacities. Statistical AI, or machine learning, is great at pattern recognition, but not at using logic. And symbolic AI can reason about relationships using predetermined rules, but it’s not great at learning on the fly. The new study proposes a way to bridge the gap: an artificial neural network for relational reasoning. Similar to the way neurons are connected in the brain, neural nets stitch together tiny programs that collaboratively …

Khot’s insight

One summer afternoon in 2001, while visiting relatives in India, Subhash Khot drifted into his default mode — quietly contemplating the limits of computation. For hours, no one could tell whether the third-year Princeton University graduate student was working or merely sinking deeper into the living-room couch. That night, he woke up, scribbled something down and returned to bed. Over breakfast the next morning, he told his mother that he had come up with an interesting idea. She didn’t know what it was, but her reserved older son seemed unusually happy. Khot’s insight — now called the Unique Games Conjecture — helped him make progress on a problem he was working on at the time, but even Khot and his colleagues did not realize its potential. “It just sounded like an idea that would be nice if it was true,” recalled Khot, now a 36-year-old computer science professor at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. When Khot returned to Princeton, he mentioned the idea to Sanjeev Arora, his doctoral adviser, who advised him …

Danger of artificial stupidity

It is not often that you are obliged to proclaim a much-loved international genius wrong, but in the alarming prediction made recently regarding Artificial Intelligence and the future of humankind, I believe Professor Stephen Hawking is. Well to be precise, being a theoretical physicist — in an echo of Schrödinger’s cat, famously both dead and alive at the same time — I believe the Professor is both wrong and right at the same time. Wrong because there are strong grounds for believing that computers will never be able to replicate all human cognitive faculties and right because even such emasculated machines may still pose a threat to humanity’s future existence; an existential threat, so to speak. In an interview on December 2, 2014 Rory Cellan-Jones asked how far engineers had come along the path towards creating artificial intelligence, and slightly worryingly Professor Hawking, replied “Once humans develop artificial intelligence it would take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and …